Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Virginia Association of Teachers of English VATE

The drive from Purcellville to Roanoke is peaceful with crooked fingers of The Blue Ridge Parkway tempting drivers to turn off the main drag and swirl through the rolling mountains ablaze in fall color.  The VATE conference was well orchestrated highlighted by a wonderful presentation by a student performance group doing Suesical (spelling?).

On Sunday morning it was my turn to speak at the breakfast and Sandra Whitaker gave me the most beautiful introduction, part of which I am sharing below.  I'm not sure if this is a copyright violation, but she was kind enough to give me a copy so here goes.  Since I also knew that the next day she would be defending her dissertation, it was even double, triple touching that she took time to write this beautiful prose.

"Performance poetry has its own special kind of magic.  As words hand in the air, begging to touch the soul, the poet and the audience linger in a space between being and becoming.  when words break past our defenses, tingle our senses and move our spirits, we change, seeing reality  through a different lens or in a new way."  She oh so kindly credited me with lending a hand in helping students and teachers "unleash the poet within, and to use performance poetry as a powerful way to understand academic concepts and the richness of life.  When children as her why she is teaching poetry , she says (and I do), "Because someday you will need it.  I can't tell you when, but you will."

Sandra writes that "poetry is truth"  affirming with her hard earned PhD and wise words what I have always felt, that the overwhelming majority of poetry is non-fiction.  "The funny encounters, the heartbreaks, the tragic losses, and the blessings . . . poems (and blogs) are a testament to how much the soul needs poetry."  That it "isn't the state standards, or lack thereof, that make us need poetry.  It isn't  that old dusty books of poetry reside in many of our personal libraries.  We need poetry because it is through poetry that we express what we can't say, that we shed the tears our eyes won't cry, and that we dance life's rhythms without tripping over our own feet . . . [Poetry] reveals our darkest secrets veiled in universal truth.  It is the common thread weaving together all of time and place, uttering what we dared not say, giving voice to the human experience."  Where upon she quoted from my poem "If I were a Poem" and handed me the mike.

Follow that!  It was such a beautiful piece of writing, I wanted to just sit down and digest rather than talk.  Thank you so much for filling my heart with words of poetry put into paragraphs Sandy.  And thanks to Brent for lending his voice to a performance of a poem for two voices and to all the teachers who warm smiles and hugs welcomed me back to VA.  And I came home with a rock from Tinker's Creek in hand and poetic words in my heart.  

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tight End Poet Number 37

Here's what I know about football: Someone shouts out a number, another guy hikes the ball, and then everyone either makes a break for it or they fall in a pile. They get four chances to score and then they have to turn over the ball and let the other team have a chance to break for the goal. That's the sum total of what I know. Mostly I have always felt that football was invented to keep the men folk occupied on Sundays so that I had that time to myself, which is the sole source of any warm feelings that may have visited my heart over the oh so many football seasons of my life.

That was up until Ben put on pads, and there I was last week, under the lights at Fireman's Field in Purcellville, VA (and a quilt) trying to learn what exactly a tight end does. Exactly. Which definitely puts me in the category of being not smarter than a third grader, because all those guys seemed to know exactly what they were doing and who they were supposed to hit when. Impressive. Ben's team didn't chalk up a win because of the (are you kidding me?) passing game of the other team, but they fought right up to the horn blasting in the fall air.
So, what do you think?
Can a tight end make a pencil point conversion and write poetry? Can a clear eye and determination on the field translate into words on a page at school the next day? Yeppers. Look at ol' 37 as he bends into his writing, creating a Swirl of a poem.

This was the first time I ever tried writing definition poems with a third grade class -- and they were so great. I learned that a swirl is not cardboard or a straight line and that teeth can't grow hair. Working from their vocabulary words for the week, conferring with partners, co-composing, and writing on their own, the whole class teamed up to make some pretty cool poetry.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

KSRA Poetry Around

As Michael and I were driving to Keystone State Reading Association this week, (well, let me amend that, as Michael was driving and I was taking in the colorful hills and valleys along the PA turnpike) anyway, while we were traversing the oh so long state of PA, I tried to count how many times I have attended this meeting since 1991.  It was definitely one of the first teacher conferences I ever attended.  Can't remember.  Lots of times.  What I have no trouble remembering are the fine friends and poets I have had the honor to hang out with during the meetings and at the evening poetry around

One of the best is Will Mowery who this year read lively, insightful tidbits from his writer's notebook.  Michael also pitched in with a few poems.  Will says that the important thing about poetry for kids is that a good poem always requires inference.

The event has been better attended in past years, but this time most of the teachers were commuting, the creaking economy has his both teachers and school professional development budgets hard.  Attendance at teacher conferences is down in general.   Hopefully this will change next year when KSRA returns to its old home in Hershey.  Here's hopin'.

Meantime, I appreciate the opportunity to connect with old friends, meet new ones, and share good words.  The importance of teacher conferences can't be overstated -- it's a place to learn new ideas and feed the spirit, both benefits of equal import.  

Oh, and on a different note, congratulations to Mary Ann Hoberman who has just replace Jack Prelutsky as the children's poet laureate.  Who even knew there was such a thing?  News to me.  But still -- cool beans.  She's a fine choice.  

Friday, October 17, 2008

Where do you find the words? Black River Schools

The question came during magic time, the final question and answer session after the assembly. Good question! Sometimes I can find the words and other times they tumble around in my head and refuse to commit themselves to paper. Other times the words seem to have sleeping sickness and are too lazy to even attempt to kick it around on the page. Which is kind of where I have been lately. The best cure I can think of for not writing is to write -- which I did -- right along with the students at Black River elementary and middle schools this week.

The second day I was there another student asked if I had ever written a poem about bullies. I told him that, funny you should ask, but in fact I was working on one right here -- and held up a piece of paper with words jumping and skidding all over it. What inspired me to write? Joining a writing community and that simple directive, "we'll just write now for about 5 minutes. I invariably stretch this five minute promise to at least 10 -- just enough time for all of us to get something down on paper.

As we head into the weekend and beyond, as this week starts to puddle into last and the week before, as the sharp edges of our memories begin to fade -- none of us will go forward empty handed. Thanks to Principal Tammy Starkey -- it was great working with you again -- and thanks to the kids in Black River for welcoming me into their writing community.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bountiful Harvest

Arms full of basil, red, yellow, and green peppers. Tomatoes of all shapes and sizes. Lettuce and even some banana peppers. A few choice strawberries and lots of flowers. And the only fertilizer used came from worm castings. I'm not quite ready to enter the county fair, but this labor of love netted some fine eating this summer. Here I am with almost the final harvest, though I'm still pulling a tomato or two a day. I put up 24 freezer bags of pesto and we have had abundant salads.

Already I am planning next summer and how I can rearrange rows so that the spinach doesn't get so leggy and that the tomatoes get more sun and I want to put in more peppers so that we can stuff more with that yummy rice concoction we came up with and put them in the freezer.

All last week I was obsessed with the economy in free fall. I wrung my hands and spent waaaay too many hours watching growth charts plummeting like pelicans, hoping the next economist they put on the panel would have one positive thing to say. Not one did. The campaign kept getting nastier. The news was just bad all around, but I couldn't take my eyes off of it. And I twisted my knee, which didn't help my mood or my ability to walk off my anxiety. Even when I turned off the flat screen fear machine to escape into fiction, it was bad news. Reading a fictionalized biography of Nefertiti (in anticipation of the big trip to Cairo) wouldn't you know the court of Egypt came down with the plague and four of the six of Pharaoh's kids died. I know it is a few thousand years late to feel bad for them, but I did. I was just feeling bad all 'round.

Here's what I almost forgot. I forgot this picture that Michael had snapped the week before. That these cool breezes that will ultimately be followed by warm ones -- and another planting season.

'Course next year I may be planting with a little more sense of urgency if the economy doesn't turn around, but it's comforting to know that Mother Nature and the worm bins in the basement have our back.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Anatomy of a speech

Missouri Reading Association is a warm, inviting event. Michael and I are on the docket to do the kick off keynote. Tick Tick the Clock. Teachers filing into the ballroom. And I race to make one more change. Michael (owner of the watch) says to let it go, but I know that in the face of the hotel coffee that can't stand up for itself and the unfortunate ballroom carpet that if I don't make this last change, all will be lost. It is a matter of extreme urgency that I adjust the program with 7 minutes to show time. I have to. I must. Or else.

Or else what?

OR ELSE! You know. The world as we know it will end, the stock market will crash, and a you betcha chick with a come hither wink will be nominated for Vice President.

Oh, wait a minute. I made the change, we began on time and all those things happened anyway.

Oh well. You never know.

The coolest thing about this event was really the next morning when Smokey Daniels had all the teachers write down their ideas on what we should do to improve education and then divided the letters into two piles and then into two envelops to be mailed to the Obama and McCain campains. You never saw a ballroom of teachers scribble faster and with more intensity in your life. Any other time I might have thought that it was simply the astigmatic anxiety oozing up from the carpet that had them wound up, but there was no doubting the genuine passion of the teachers as they put their ideas down on paper.